As carpenters and surgeons know, nothing is more gratifying than using the proper tool. So it is with knives, which have been developed over generations to suit professional cooks, who must perform every imaginable cutting chore in the quickest, easiest possible manner. Bearing in mind that knife lengths always refer to the blade, not the overall knife, following are the principal kitchen knives, presented roughly in order of their importance.
Also called a cook's knife, the chef's knife is the kitchen workhorse, useful for almost all cutting, slicing, chopping, and mincing tasks. This knife's blade curves upward toward the tip and is broad for straight cutting through thick items, thick at the back for weight and strength, and curved for rocking through fine chopping and mincing. For speed when chopping, expert chefs use a fingertip to press down on and anchor the tip and then pivot the knife around this point.
Chef's knives come in lengths of 6, 8, 10, and 12 inches. Length is crucial. The longer the knife, the heavier it is and the more difficult to control. Shorter blades suit small-handed cooks. Those with big hands or more developed skills prefer longer blades for speed (one cut instead of two).
A good chef's knife has a bolster, a thick band of metal between blade and handle. For control, you should grip the handle of the chef's knife behind the blade between forefinger and thumb. The bolster helps anchor your thumb and prevents the knife from slipping.
A full tang (the extension of the blade running through the handle) used to be important for knife strength, durability, and balance, particularly for a chef's knife. However, the popularity of molded, ergonomic handles with partial tangs that are nonetheless strong, rugged, and balanced has rendered this requirement obsolete.
Dividing a radish, trimming asparagus, peeling an apple, cutting celery--these are the tasks a paring knife does best. It's the essential fruit-and-vegetable knife (and also comes in handy when there's string to be cut or a package to be opened). Available in lengths from 2 to 4-1/4 inches, a classically shaped paring knife has a thin, narrow blade tapering to a tip, which is perfect for digging out a potato's eyes or paring away a peach's blemishes.
The principal variant of this shape is the bird's beak or peeling knife. Its hooked blade is an advantage for peeling and shaping but a disadvantage for straight cutting. For that, there's another variant, a straight-edge paring knife that's ideal for slicing carrots and zucchini into disks but awkward for peeling. Having all three versions within reach is not a necessity, but can be useful.
Carving and Slicing Knives
With long, thin, straight-edge blades, carving and slicing knives are designed to carve roasts and poultry and to slice hams and salami. Because their blades run from 8 to 14 inches, carving knives can also be used to open a melon or slice bread in a pinch. Some cooks make a distinction between a heavier, thicker carving knife (for cutting through joints) and a lighter, thinner slicing knife, but the distinction is not reliably employed by manufacturers.
Some carvers and slicers, called granton or hollow-edge knives, have hollow recesses spaced along their blades. (The hollows alternate on each side of the blade so the entire edge has a hollow on one side or the other.) The hollows create air pockets that prevent slices from adhering to the blade and permit thinner slicing. Most carvers and slicers are pointed so they can reach into tight areas, but a roast-beef slicer has a blunt end.
When a paring knife is too small and a chef's knife too unwieldy, a utility knife comes in handy. Usually 5 to 6-1/2 inches long, utility knives sometimes have serrated edges so they can grip tomatoes and soft-skinned fruits, but the serrations make them less useful for making clean cuts. Because they're the right size for slicing lunch meats, utility knives are sometimes called sandwich knives.
Boning and Fillet Knives
Ranging from 4-1/4 to 7 inches in length, boning and fillet knives vary greatly in the shape of their blades. Boning knives have narrow, curved blades for cutting around the bones of meat and poultry. The blades can be either rigid (for cutting through joints) or flexible (for cutting around joints). Fillet knives have thinner, longer, flexible blades for removing bones and skin from fish.
All true bread knives have serrated edges, and cutting through bread is their single purpose. The serrations (large enough, in knifespeak, to qualify as "scallops") grab hold of the thick, rough crust of a loaf so it can be sliced. Because a good, hard crust withstands the repeated sawing of a nonserrated blade, a bread knife is essential for anything but soft-crusted sandwich breads. Usually 8 or 9 inches long, a bread knife's blade is too big and too thick for neatly slicing tomatoes or soft-skinned fruits, and the serrations will rip a roast's fibers rather than slicing cleanly through them.
With a thick, heavy blade, a cleaver doesn't cut--it whacks through the bones and joints of meat. Exceptions are the Asian (or Chinese) cleaver and the Japanese usuba knife. These lighter instruments have blades heavy enough for whacking through a duck's bones but thin enough to slice a bitter melon.
Intended for the dining table, these 4- to 6-inch knives have thin, narrow blades for cutting steaks, chops, and roasts into bite-size pieces. Some steak knives have serrated edges, some have straight edges. Serrations tend to tear meat fibers rather than slicing neatly through them; however, neat little pieces of meat are not always the first thing a carnivore thinks of when contemplating a thick porterhouse. Steakhouse-style knives have broader blades and larger serrations.
Cheese Knives: These blades come in a variety of shapes and are used for cutting and serving cheeses of different degrees of density and hardness. Cheese knives designed for soft cheeses should have holes in the middle of the blade to prevent cheese from sticking to the knife after slicing.
Garnishing or Decorating Knives: This wavy-sided blade is used for slicing vegetables into decorative shapes.
Grapefruit Knives: This bent blade is usually serrated on both sides for removing grapefruit sections without their membranes.
Tomato Knives: Tomato knives have thin, narrow, serrated blades that grip the skin of tomatoes and soft-skinned fruits so they can be sliced safely and evenly.
Deba Knife: Used in Japan for butchering fish and chopping hard vegetables, these knives have a broad blade that is thick at the back and tapers sharply midway down.
Fish Knives: The sashimi knife is a long, extreme thin blade for preparing sashimi and sushi. A tako or takohiki is a long, thin blade with a blunt tip used in eastern Japan for precisely filleting and slicing fish. A yanagi is the western Japanese equivalent of the tako, only with a pointed blade.
Santoku Knives: This is the Japanese equivalent of a European chef's knife, although shorter, and with a narrower blade, a low tip instead of a point, and a straighter edge. Santoku knives are ideal for slicing vegetables.
Usuba: The Japanese equivalent of a Chinese cleaver, the usuba knife is used for precise cutting, slicing, chopping, and mincing.